Graciousness, charity vital for healthy debates

A recent piece by Professor Cass R. Sunstein of Harvard Law School offered insightful commentary on political Manichaeism (The destructive cycle of hating more and more; May 24).

Prof Sunstein wrote that political Manichaeism can be found whenever disagreements about political issues are seen not as reasonable disputes among fellow citizens, but instead as pitting decent people with decent character against horrible people with horrible character.

While he was characterising the situation in the United States, I have also seen the tendencies he described in Singapore - in social media and other online spaces.

For example, people who voice their conservative views on laws and policies affecting family, marriage, sexuality and relationships have been demonised as "hateful", "discriminatory" and "bigoted".

Name-calling shuts down the possibility of a productive conversation and a healthy exchange of views.

Characterising someone who has opposing convictions as "evil" is an ad hominem attack that detracts from debating issues in a reasonable and respectful way.

Such actions, which are ironically often done in the name of "tolerance" and "inclusiveness", are neither tolerant nor inclusive of differing views.

As Prof Sunstein rightly observed, Manichaeism leads people to focus not on substantive issues on which progress might be made, but instead to attribute terrible motivations to their fellow citizens.

I hope that we in Singapore can do better by being committed to respectful, reasonable and robust discourse with one another.

It starts from believing that, like us, those who have differing views also hold them as deeply held convictions. We should be eager to listen to them to understand their views.

It also means we should be able to share our perspectives clearly and civilly, without name-calling or attributing awful attributes or motives to people who disagree with us.

For Prof Sunstein, the best antidotes to the temptations of Manichaeism are charity and grace.

I hope that Singaporeans can build a truly tolerant and inclusive society, in which we are committed to relate to one another charitably and graciously - no matter what our convictions are.

This will help us to focus on productively talking about and acting upon how we can move forward as a country.

Zhang Jieqiang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2018, with the headline 'Graciousness, charity vital for healthy debates'. Print Edition | Subscribe